Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

In the last third of the book of Proverbs, the theme of the quarrelsome wife is brought up five times (Proverbs 19:13; 21:9; 21:19; 25:24; 27:15). And those references raise a question: Is a husband encouraged to separate himself from such a wife? This is the question today, not from a man, but from a woman, a listener named Sarah.

“Hello, Pastor John! My question is regarding verses in Proverbs to husbands about their wives. Specifically Proverbs 21:9 — ‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.’ And Proverbs 21:19 — ‘Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.’ In the verses, and specifically in Proverbs when talking about the quarrelsome wife, I get the impression that the man should not stay with a wife of this character. Or at least it is not good to be with a wife who is quarrelsome.

“Is this a warning to men in being wise in selecting a wife? Or is this for women, a warning to wives and future wives to root our hearts in God’s wisdom so we don’t become quarrelsome? And how does this verse apply if a wife does in fact become quarrelsome later in the marriage? I know God’s will is for a man and woman to stay together for life. But can you bring clarity on the meaning and wisdom that should be pulled from these verses that seem to suggest separation?”

Evidence of a Hardened Heart

If a man reads Proverbs 21:9 and Proverbs 21:19 — “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife,” and “It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman” — and concludes in his heart that divorce and remarriage are being commended here, we know that he is in the power of a hardened heart, which God disapproves of.

“The man with a quarrelsome wife is not free to abandon her. He has made a covenant with her.”

We know it because that’s what Jesus said. The Pharisees said that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away for being a quarrelsome wife. That’s what they said to Jesus: Moses let a man have a certificate of divorce and send a quarrelsome wife away (Mark 10:2–4). But Jesus said to them,

Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, “God made the male and female.” “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his [quarrelsome] wife.” (Mark 10:5–7)

There are pointers in Proverbs that leaving this woman for another is not what God approves of. For example, Proverbs 2:16–17: “You will be delivered from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God.”

Now, this cuts both ways, for the man and the woman, because a covenant obliges both partners in the covenant. Covenant-keeping in marriage is obliged by covenant-keeping with God. It goes both ways in marriage because it’s rooted in covenant with God. For God’s people, human covenants are rooted in the divine covenant. The man with a quarrelsome wife is not free to abandon her. He has a covenant. He’s made a covenant with her.

Four Lessons

So, what do these verses mean? That’s what she wants to know. What effect should they have on us when we read them? I think I’ve got three or four things to mention.

1. Find the Right Woman

The first implication is for young men who are not married: Don’t marry a quarrelsome woman. Live in a desert if you have to. Live in a tiny room on your roof with your parents if you have to before you do that.

The reason I say the first implication is for young unmarried men is because when you start reading the book of Proverbs, you get the impression that this book is a summation of the teaching of fathers and mothers that they taught to their sons while growing up. That’s the impression you get when you read chapters one and two. Twice at least, the men referred to as the audience here are called young men and may not yet be married (Proverbs 7:7; 20:29). So beware, young men: he who finds a wife finds a good thing (Proverbs 18:22). Wait for her. That’s the first implication.

2. Seek to Be Agreeable

Second, a woman who listens in to the counsel of these verses — and I think it’s assumed that over time, women are going to hear the book of Proverbs — will take them to heart and seek not to be a quarrelsome or contentious wife.

“God is able to make out of a quarrelsome wife a helpful and prudent wife.”

Of course, she will take the hint that she too might want to be content to live on the roof or in the desert than to marry a quarrelsome husband. It cuts both ways. It’s a lesson: Don’t marry quarrelsome people. And if you’re married, women, do your best not to be quarrelsome and contentious.

3. God Changes Hearts

Third, if the Proverbs teach that a prudent wife is from the Lord, a gift from the Lord, then God is able to make out of a quarrelsome wife a helpful and prudent wife. If he gives the gift, if he sovereignly gives the gift, he can give it before marriage, and he can give it after marriage by changing the wife.

That’s what the Proverbs teach: “House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Proverbs 19:14). He can cause you to marry such a woman, or he can create such a woman after you’re married. That’s the third implication.

4. Keep Loving Her

Fourth, the Proverbs do not teach that we should repay evil for evil or quarrelsomeness for quarrelsomeness or abandonment for quarrelsomeness. What does it teach? It teaches, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Proverbs 24:17), and, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25:21).

“God calls us to treat a quarrelsome wife better than she deserves, not worse than she deserves.”

The wife, of course, should not be seen as an enemy. But if her quarrelsomeness constantly puts her in that category, she’s going to act like an enemy, at least a verbal enemy. Here’s how to treat her — namely, better than she deserves, not worse than she deserves. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (especially the closest neighbor) doesn’t show up first in the New Testament. It shows up first in Leviticus 19:18, which is long before Proverbs. It is more than affirmed in Proverbs 24:17 and Proverbs 25:21, which talk about loving your enemy.

When Proverbs says, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife,” it means that this greater ease, greater comfort, greater peace of the housetop over going downstairs and loving this woman is true. It’s true.

It’s easier, it’s more comfortable, it’s more peaceful to just go up on the roof and get away from this nagging and quarreling wife, from this contention. It’s true. It’s better in many ways, but it’s not to be chosen over the path of love. There’s a covenant, and there’s a command: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”